‘Oh my God, this is like recording Nina Simone’: David Holmes on producing Sinéad O’Connor’s final album

<span>Photograph: Kim Haughton/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Kim Haughton/Shutterstock

In 2018, David Holmes was invited to Shane MacGowan’s 60th birthday concert bash. The Pogues, Bono, Nick Cave, Bobby Gillespie and more were all performing songs in his honour. “Everyone was there to celebrate the genius of Shane but she stood out by a country mile,” says Holmes. “Sinéad O’Connor stole the show.”

Holmes, the Belfast DJ, producer and composer who has worked with everyone from Noel Gallagher to Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh, bumped into O’Connor after the show and took his chance to propose working together on an album about healing. “She never even questioned me,” says Holmes, speaking by phone. “She didn’t have a clue about anything I’ve ever done before but that’s so Sinéad. Just so non-judgmental and incredibly approachable.”

When Holmes started sending her tunes as ideas for possible directions, O’Connor’s response was emphatic. “I sent her some music and she absolutely loved it,” he says. “We then did a cover of Mahalia Jackson’s Trouble of the World [released in 2020] but when we recorded it we both knew it wasn’t the one. She had got tired. But she said, ‘You know what, I’ll live with the song for a few more days, learn it more, and I’ll come back on Wednesday.’

“On Tuesday night I’d been up until 5am editing vocals and getting the sound really nice for her. At 9am the doorbell went and I just knew it was Sinéad. My wife went downstairs and answered the door and Sinéad’s like, ‘I left Bray at half three in the morning because I was so excited about recording this vocal.’” Holmes’ 5am tinkering session proved futile. “I made her a bacon sandwich and a cup of tea,” he recalls. “We went upstairs, set her up, put headphones on, and hit record. Boom. One take. She was in her car back to Bray at 10am. I was like: wow, I am never ever going to forget this moment.”

The pair completed eight tracks over a five-year period. In 2021, O’Connor announced that the album was to be called No Veteran Dies Alone and planned for release the following year. That didn’t come to pass, perhaps owing to the tragic death of her 17-year-old son Shane in January 2022.

The album’s creation was harmonious, says Holmes. “She told me: ‘I want us to make music together forever. We just had an understanding.” This was echoed by O’Connor herself, speaking to the Irish Sun in 2018: “David is lovely, and the kindest person I think I’ve ever met. Literally would give you the skin off his back, never mind the shirt.”

O’Connor threw herself into the project entirely. “She just moved to Belfast one day and started living in my house,” Holmes says. “The first house I ever bought was a little bungalow when they were basically giving houses away in Belfast. She moved in and loved it. She’d go to Sainsbury’s, and because Belfast is such a small place, people would be like: ‘Did I just see Sinéad O’Connor in the supermarket?’”

O’Connor’s presence extended beyond her humble bungalow and local Sainsbury’s. “I got a phone call from the one and only priest I know in Northern Ireland,” says Holmes. “I’m so un-religious but he was the priest at the funeral for my sister and a friend. He says, ‘Could you please get Sinéad to sign Rememberings [her autobiography] for me because I think she is a prophet?’ That’s coming from a priest within the Catholic church.”

Holmes becomes animated speaking about O’Connor’s treatment in regard to this subject. “She was vilified for calling out the protection of these monsters,” he says. “And that’s what they were, monsters. It’s a really tragic handling of a very beautiful, sincere, fearless woman who had so much love to give.”

Born just a few years apart, Holmes remembers her vast impact growing up. “How could anyone hear her voice and not be affected by it?” he says. “When I first started going to clubs and getting into ecstasy culture, I would come back to my bedroom [after a night out] and listen to the 12in version of Nothing Compares 2 U and cry. But they were happy tears. It was music at its most profound. It was a higher connection. Something that just got right into your heart and soul and gave it a squeeze.”

Holmes felt an instinctual urge to work with O’Connor on a sonic and personal level. “I felt deep down in my heart that there was so much she had still yet to achieve,” he says. “In terms of musical directions, a palette of sounds and her sheer breadth of emotion. There were so many places she wanted to go. I mentioned the healing aspects because I’ve been through my own mental health issues and music was a big part of helping me through that. She had the perfect voice to heal and help people get through very difficult times.”

Holmes saw first-hand the gulf between O’Connor and her public portrayal. “You see other people’s perceptions of her and it’s so unfair,” he says. “Because you’re dealing with someone with an extraordinary gift – just with a long history of mental health issues – and rather than being nurtured and helped, she was laughed at and vilified. The whole thing is so bloody medieval. Sinéad was hung, drawn and quartered. The treatment that she has received over the years it’s quite simply appalling. When I was working with her, all I saw was somebody who was incredibly kind, funny and very thoughtful.”

Holmes felt like the magic was still absolutely there during the recordings. “I was like, oh my God, this is like recording Nina Simone,” he says. “There’s no one else like her. She’s got one of the purest voices we will ever hear in our lifetime.” But he won’t be pushed into revealing details on what the record sounds like. “There’s so much more I could talk about but it’s way too early to start talking about the music,” he says. “I don’t know when it’s gonna see the light of day, and that’s none of my business. It’s up to her estate and record label. But it’s extraordinary. It’s up there with her best work – it’s very, very special.”

The record had been largely completed by the time of Shane’s death. “I remember at the time thinking: I don’t know if she can survive this,” Holmes says. “Because I understood the fragility of her and how much she loved Shane.”

However, Holmes is keen to stress the need for a focus on joy above tragedy in the wake of her death. “I want to mourn her but also celebrate her because that’s what we do in Ireland,” he says. “We celebrate our deaths. Yes, she was taken far too young but there’s so much to celebrate rather than talk about the negative aspects of her life. Sinéad was tortured but she was really happy as well and part of me thinks that she is now at peace.”